He's back! The guy who invented smart talk in the afternoon, who brought startling new ideas into the living rooms and laundry rooms of American women, is returning to TV to shake up the national conversation.
It's what I call a full-circle: Phil Donahue, the trailblazer who used the power of television to transform a nation, sits across from me in a rocking chair on the terrace of his Manhattan penthouse. Back in 1967, long before I ever dreamed of a talk show of my own and the life it would bring me, he was captivating viewers in Dayton, Ohio; in 1969, his show debuted nationally, and the whole country came to know his personal brand of issue-driven straight talk. If there had been no Phil Donahue show, there would be no Oprah Winfrey show. He was the first to acknowledge that women are interested in more than mascara tips and cake recipes—that we're intelligent, we're concerned about the world around us, and we want the best possible lives for ourselves.

Now, six years after the white-haired one hung up his mike and canceled the talk show that garnered 20 Daytime Emmys, he's back. Early this year he received a call that astonished him as much as it delighted him: MSNBC was offering him a prime-time news show that would run five nights a week opposite Bill O'Reilly on Fox and Connie Chung on CNN. It was a call that Donahue, a 66-year-old father of five and grandfather of two, never expected, especially given that, two years earlier, he'd campaigned for presidential candidate Ralph Nader on a platform that challenged corporate power.

The June afternoon I met him in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, actress Marlo Thomas, he was as full of zest and chutzpah as he'd been during his three decades on television. He greeted me in a foyer filled with pink peonies, then led me to a glass-enclosed wraparound terrace overlooking Central Park and most of Manhattan. Between sips of Passion Peach iced tea, he talked about everything he's learned from television—and why he feels the conversation we need more than ever is being silenced.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Phil Donahue

Note: This interview appeared in the September 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


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